Times were hard, unemployment had exploded during the Great Depression and the Works Progress Administration announced it would shut down its Broadway production.
“The Cradle Will Rock,” federally funded by the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project, was too radical, officials said. Closing it might have been easier had the WPA not been dealing with Orson Welles, John Houseman and Marc Blitzstein.
Blitzstein wrote the music and book for the show, which had a pro-union slant. Welles was the director, and Houseman the producer.
Welles was a young force with which to be reckoned in his day.
He eventually would form the Mercury Theatre, whose 1939 national radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds,” would frighten Americans into believing they were being invaded by Martians.
He’d also incorporate the same company of actors into his film, “Citizen Kane,” the hallmark of his creative genius at age 26.
But even a WPA padlock on Broadway’s Maxine Elliott Theatre could not stop the Welles-Houseman combination in 1937. The LSU Opera tells this story at the beginning of its production of “The Cradle Will Rock,” which opens Friday, April 25, in the Claude L. Shaver Theatre in the LSU Music and Dramatic Arts Building.
“The theater was closed four days before the show was to open,” says Dugg McDonough, director of the LSU Opera. “So, Welles, Houseman and Blitzstein moved the show about a mile down the road to the Venice Theatre.”
Welles rented a piano for Blitzstein, who staged a one-man show. The musicians’ union refused to perform without full salaries, and Actors Equity Association would not allow its members to perform on stage without permission from the original producer, the WPA.
So cast members assembled in the audience and sang their parts from their seats.
“It was a hit,” McDonough says. “And it ran on Broadway for a number of performances after that.”
At this last rehearsal before spring break, LSU Opera members take their places in straight back and bentwood chairs to tell the story in the first scene.
From there, they run through the show without stopping, performing jazz, vaudeville, Broadway show tunes and, yes, opera.
This was Blitzstein’s style, which later influenced composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. And it’s fun.
“It’s unlike any other opera,” McDonough says. “It’s talked about a lot. And Tim Robbins directed a great film in 1999 telling the story about how this production came about. But it’s rarely performed.”
McDonough chose the 2013-14 season for this show to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Blitzstein’s death.
“The show is about the common man and how he could get a fair shake,” McDonough says. “Many of the characters’ names represent status or professions in life.”
The story is set in Steeltown, USA, which is run by tycoon Mr. Mister. His wife is Mrs. Mister. One day, Larry Foreman comes to town to organize a labor union.
Foreman is played by Sean O’Malley, of Lagrangeville, N.Y., who is working on his master’s degree in voice.
“A lot of the things that this show talks about are things that are prevalent today,” he says. “Larry Foreman is passionate, fired up and energetic, and he causes so many problems for Mr. Mister. He’s trying to get everyone a fair deal.”
The variety of musical genres has been fun for O’Malley and for Rachel Abbate, a junior from Destrehan majoring in vocal performance, who plays Ella Hammer.
“She doesn’t come in until close to the end, but her brother died in an accident in the factory, and she confronts the doctor, who tells her her brother was pushed,” Hammer says. “But when it comes time to testify, the doctor covers it up by saying it was an accident. The show runs two hours, but there is never a dead moment. The scenes are both serious and funny.”
It’s the way Blitzstein wrote it, the way Welles directed it and the way McDonough directs it now.
“We’ll have the piano off stage,” says McDonough. “And we’ll just be using the chairs and some projected images in the back as the set. We’ll keep it simple in the spirit of how it was first performed.”